"My mum and me know a thing or two about courage and acceptance"
Digital team's blog
Justine is currently acting in Cracked, a new play about mental illness. Here she blogs about growing up with her mum, who has schizophrenia.
"When I was four years old I used to dress up in my mum’s old clothes. It was then that I knew I wanted to be an actor. It wasn’t until recently, 40 years later during rehearsals for the play I am currently doing that I fully realised why; I wanted to be an actor because my four year old self was dressing up and pretending to be my beautiful, smart, creative mum before she became mentally ill.
My mum’s schizophrenia started when I was a small child and I saw her talking to herself and behaving strangely. I had no words to describe what I now know is paranoia and delusion, but all I know is that it was scary. It was scary for her, and it was scary for me. She would look behind picture frames to see if anyone was watching her, she thought the queen of Russia was trying to assassinate her and by the time I was six she was seeing Jesus in the mirror.
There’s a line from a play I am doing at the moment which sums up so much of how the little four year old me felt when my mum became ill - ‘He hadn’t died, but we had lost him’. The mummy I knew in those first three years of my life had gone, and however hard I tried to be good, however much I prayed, nothing would bring her back.
The onset of psychosis is tough for everyone. There is no rulebook and it is not always clear where to go or what to do. Who can we talk to? Where is safe? Just what is the best way to handle it?
Thankfully mental health services are different now to the way they were in the 1970’s when my mum first became ill. Over my lifetime I have seen various illnesses coming out of the closet, and thank god we are all starting to talk. It’s not easy but at least there are professionals who can help and places where people can go to get support and advice. Not every family needs to harbour a dark secret in shame, psychiatric wards are less reminiscent of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the metaphorical 'ship of fools' is at least being held in harbour.
I’m not a health professional but my mum and me know a thing or two about courage and acceptance. We have never been very good friends, but somehow, somewhere in our fractured, strange and delicate relationship, we have found a trust and a love that has flourished against all odds in the midst of chaos and despair.
If I say that I loved my adolescence you may think I’m crazy, but the truth is that my mum and I found common ground in that place of transition and curiosity and looking back I wonder whether, for a short time at least, we inhabited a bit of the same world. For a while she seemed ‘normal’, and gave me trust and acceptance despite my erratic and no doubt irritating behaviour. She attempted to explain her visions to me, she told me about the voices in her head and she never criticized my weird moods, my boyfriends or my jewellery.
It was probably not a coincidence that it was me she came to years later when she decided to stop taking her medication and the psychiatrist called to alert me of her sudden change in behaviour. I was the person who accepted her fear and paranoia for what it was and didn’t deny her when she told me that she had a rat in her stomach and her parents were part of the police. Because of this she wasn’t forcibly removed from her house and sectioned, but instead she opened the door willingly and got in my car so I could take her somewhere safe where medical help was available.
I will never forget her courage that day, standing by the reception in the mental health unit waiting to be admitted. We had both made it there, despite everything that was cracked and warped and terrifying, and whilst I was considering the stress, the years of heartache and the hatefulness of the insanity that surrounded me, I looked over and saw a single tear trickle down my mum’s cheek. At that moment I forgot all my own stuff and my heart wanted to burst for all that she still is and all that she has suffered.
I can’t wave a wand and make it all better. Nobody can. I’ve used creativity to try and make sense of the madness and had a fair bit of therapy along the way. What I would say however is that if there are any of you out there who have lost someone you love to mental illness - try as hard as you can to find just a little love, just a little acceptance and just a little courage. Talk to each other if you can, try to fathom the unfathomable and hang in there. I say this because whatever you can give in the midst of chaos may well turn out to be the best thing you have."
Justine is currently performing in Cracked, a play on at Warwick's Santé Theatre and then on tour at various dates across the country.